Tabletop Tidbits: The Write-up Imbalance that is Brunkel’s Room

When running a campaign, there’s a sort of inner checklist of things I’m looking to achieve. I want everyone to have fun, of course. I want a story that’s great and for the player characters to progress. I want the campaign world to feel real and alive, with companions and NPCs that are more than just backdrop. I want to screw up as seldom as possible, and for things to run smoothly. And finally (if I can), I want to add to my group’s list of “isms“. Some of these things are harder than others. Some are probably going to happen no matter what I do behind the screen. And some rely on a bit of a balancing act to do at the same time as others.

As stated last time, I’m currently running my group through The Shattered Star adventure path for Pathfinder. A few years back, I ran the “part 1” to this campaign, Rise of the Runelords. When I first started using that campaign, there were two things that I found really fascinating (and still do): [1] How different the Paizo write-ups are in style from my own, and [2] that no matter how long you’ve been running games, there’s always some lesson you can take away from looking at someone else’s notes or write-up.

In Runelords, my takeaway was Brunkel’s Lair (or Brunkel’s Room as my group later came to call it), which was a chamber within the adventure path’s first dungeon: the goblin hideout of Thistletop. The goblins had launched an assault on the nearby town of Sandpoint, and as the players learned, it was part of a larger plan, and so the PCs are given the task of stopping this plot – which leads them to the goblin’s home base, and soon enough Brunkel’s Room. The GameMaster write-up for this chamber is as follows:

Brunkel’s Lair:

“A dusty nest of rags, dog hides, and straw sits in the northeast corner of this room. To the south, a long workbench cluttered with pliers, hooks, tongs, saws, and knives runs along the wall.”

Brunkel, a goblin fighter/rogue and once the second toughest goblin in the tribe, lived here where he served as a torturer and jailer. The Thistletop goblins assumed that if anyone could survive the raid on Sandpoint, it would be Brunkel. They were wrong – Brunkel died on the sheriff’s sword within minutes of the raid’s beginning.

Keys to the cells in area D9 can be found scattered among the torture implements on the southern workbench.

Looking at this entry, it’s important to note that aside from one line in the area D9 entry (where it states that Brunkel went missing during the Santpoint raid), there is no other mention of him in the entire rest of the adventure path. This is it! When you consider that, it begs the question: Why? Why did someone write details out for this character? I know more about Brunkel than I’ve known about some PCs, and yet he’s never even seen in the adventure path. No one speaks of him and he has no “presence” that might be conveyed. Unless you the GameMaster go out of your way to insert a revelation, there’s no real way to get this information to the players.

Normally, from the viewpoint of running the game, it’s absolutely wonderful to know what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s easier to be “in character” with respects to how NPCs act and what they do when you have that knowledge. It gives the opportunity for characters that don’t appear directly to still have an impact. Sadly however, Brunkel’s Room doesn’t even give you that. Not only do you not get to present Brunkel, you also get no way to ever tell the players he was alive. For all intents and purposes, he has the same effect on the story as if the entry listed that it was just a generic torture room used by a faceless goblin from the tribe.

For me, the whole thing highlights an imbalance in story versus presentation. There’s a verisimilitude that is added to the campaign’s story by the inclusion of Brunkel; the fact that he played this role within the tribe, and that he had this lair, and that the tribe had all of these expectations as to his prowess, and that he battled in Sandpoint, and that he died on the sheriff’s blade. All of that is excellent stuff. But, how much does it add to the game’s presentation as written?

For many (if not most) GameMasters, the answer is going to be “not much”, which is sad because in just three sentences, the author wrote a character I’d like to have used. Instead, Brunkel is a negative space character, an NPC example of the Checkhov’s Gun lesson. And so, in the years since I ran that Runelords campaign, Brunkel’s Room has stayed with me. It has become a tool I use to balance my story and my presentation. I’ll sometimes stop and ask myself, “Is this another Brunkel’s Room?”, “How can I present this to keep it from being just like Brunkel’s Room?”

Interestingly, while I might not have managed to work Brunkel into my campaign back then, he’s always with me now. He’s faded even further into the ether (these days he’s a nonexistent character in a nonexistent room that’s not even in the campaign!), but he’s always there, staying true to his character as written. He’s my write-up imbalance defense mechanism. Thanks Brunkel, you little rascal.

Have any thoughts to share? Let me know in the comments below.

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